Libyan Rebels' Immediate Security Concerns
August 22, 2011
The Libyan War
Since Libyan National Transitional Council forces entered the capital city, the council’s two top officials have issued statements to remind the rebels that victory is not assured. Though the rebel council has announced the end of the Moammar Gadhafi era, it also continues to warn that areas of Tripoli remain unpacified, loyalist strongholds remain in the cities of Sirte and Sabha, and some loyalist forces could be on their way to the capital from the city of Zlitan.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), and the other top-ranking NTC official, Mahmoud Jibril, have issued several statements since NTC forces entered the city of Tripoli on Aug. 21. The leaders’ statements were meant to temper the behavior of the rebels, who feel victory is at hand, and allay international concerns that Libya could soon descend into chaos. The NTC also wants to assure residents of areas that were until recently under Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s control that NTC forces mean them no harm. Re-establishing security is the NTC’s main goal, but obstacles remain.
Gadhafi’s remaining forces will continue fighting. Abdel-Jalil said Aug. 22 that the Gadhafi era was over and that the rebels control almost all of Tripoli. However, he conceded that the Gadhafi compound at Bab al-Aziziya “and the surrounding areas” remain unpacified. The NTC has admitted that the fight is not over — not only in Tripoli but in other areas of the country as well.
Jibril warned Aug. 22 that the rebels needed to be aware that some of Gadhafi’s forces were approaching from the east. This was likely in reference to the forces that have been holding the line at Zlitan for several weeks in the face of a westward advance by Misurata-based rebels. During the simultaneous move toward the capital from Zawiya on Aug. 21, the Misurata rebels were able to push Gadhafi’s men out of Zlitan but did not advance much farther west than that. With the capital under siege and Tripoli’s eastern districts experiencing a rash of uprisings, the NTC is concerned that the loyalist forces previously in Zlitan will return to the capital to fight.
Most of Libya is under NTC control, but Gadhafi strongholds remain in Sirte and the Fezzan Desert city of Sabha. Abdel-Jalil addressed this issue directly in an Aug. 22 interview. Sirte is Gadhafi’s hometown and, like Sabha, is a bastion of the Gadhafi tribe, which has relied upon the Libyan leader’s reign for its privileged position. These likely will be the last groups of loyalists to surrender. Abdel-Jalil acknowledged that these areas remain unpacified and voiced an expectation that the inhabitants of both cities would “rise up from within” as the regime’s position continues to weaken. Later in the day, he claimed that Sirte was under siege, while Al Jazeera reported that electricity to the city had been cut and communications disrupted. Multiple senior Gadhafi officials have reportedly taken refuge in Sirte.
According to varying reports from rebel fighters in Tripoli and also Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Gadhafi’s forces retain control of 10-20 percent of Tripoli. The exact amount of territory under loyalist control is almost as much of a mystery as what became of the Libyan army’s Khamis Brigade. Commanded by Gadhafi’s son Khamis, the brigade purportedly was the strongest line of defense protecting the capital, yet on Aug. 21 the forces put up almost no resistance as rebels pushed eastward from Zawiya. An Aug. 22 Al Arabiya report claimed that Khamis Gadhafi was leading the brigade from the Gadhafi compound at Bab al-Aziziya into central Tripoli, though this was never confirmed, nor was an Al Jazeera report that his corpse had been discovered alongside the body of Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi in Tripoli. Khamis’ whereabouts, like those of his father and several other brothers, are unclear.
It is possible that the most highly trained Libyan soldiers in Tripoli have retreated to entrenched urban positions from which they plan to conduct an urban insurgency. Were this to happen, it would be very difficult for NTC forces to pacify them, as the Gadhafi forces have access to large amounts of heavy weaponry and know the city’s terrain. But an insurgency in Tripoli likely would not duplicate what happened in Iraq after the U.S. invasion; Tripoli has no deep lines of supply, like those that ran into Iraq via the Iranian and Syrian borders, and there is no foreign occupier to use as a point to rally massive numbers of people.
So rather than an Iraqi-style insurgency, perhaps a bigger concern is that the situation in Libya could become similar to those seen after the overthrow of the regimes in Somalia in 1991 and Afghanistan in 1992. In those cases, the factions that took down the incumbent governments began fighting with one another — and some of the remnants of the former regimes — in a free-for-all battle for control after failing to agree on a power-sharing formula.